Fighting fear: Local groups step up to help our community of undocumented immigrants

Photo: Eze Amos Photo: Eze Amos

When Maria Chavalan-Sut talks about her life, she smiles. She laughs. Sometimes she cries.

The Guatemalan refugee came to America in 2015 and passed a credible fear interview at the border, meaning ICE believed that she would face persecution or torture if she was sent back to her country.

But her attorney says that, like in many other cases of asylum-seekers, the notice to appear in immigration court for her first hearing did not include a date or time. When she didn’t show up, a judge ordered her removal from the country.

The 44-year-old from Guatemala City was supposed to leave the country by September 30, but with a campaign called “Hands Off Maria” and dozens of local supporters behind her, she’s instead fighting her deportation order through the legal system with a motion to reopen her case, which is currently pending before an immigration judge in Arlington.

As Charlottesville’s first undocumented immigrant taking public sanctuary in a local church, she now wakes up every morning in a Sunday school classroom-converted-apartment at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.

It was in the same church’s sanctuary that she held a press conference in October, where she told reporters and community members her story through a Spanish interpreter.

“I have lived all of my life with violence,” she says. “My children are the reason I am fighting. I want them to live without all of the suffering I have experienced. Living in the church—this is the first time I can breathe; the first time I can sleep; the first time I have not felt afraid.”

Chavalan-Sut comes from a persecuted ethnic group—Guatemala’s indigenous Kaqchikel community—which makes her a good candidate for asylum, according to Richmond-based attorney Alina Kilpatrick, who represents her.

Though she survived the first-hand violence of a long-running civil war in her home country, in which her uncles and cousins were buried alive, and the persistent pressure of persecution, marginalization, and poverty, the final straw was when a local group pressured her to sell her property and threatened severe consequences if she didn’t.

When she refused, they lit her house on fire with her entire family inside of it. This is what Chavalan-Sut fled. This is what the judge has ordered her to go back to.

Under attack

As anti-immigration rhetoric ramps up across the country, largely thanks to the president and his supporters, many local groups have emerged to help protect and advocate for Charlottesville’s often unnoticed, but ever-present, community of undocumented immigrants.

Donald Trump, who called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “drug dealers,” in his very first speech as a presidential candidate, has continued to demonize immigrants throughout his presidency. He has said the country’s undocumented people are, in fact, “not people,” but “animals,” that they “infest our country,” and that they’re coming into the United States from “shithole countries.” More recently, he’s repeatedly attacked the “migrant caravan” of men, women, and children seeking asylum at the U.S./Mexico border.

Perhaps surprisingly, Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s own data shows fewer deportations during the current president’s administration than during Barack Obama’s—from 240,255 ICE removals of undocumented immigrants in fiscal year 2016 to 226,119 in fiscal year 2017.

But under Trump, ICE has stepped up deportations of those already living in the country, from 65,332 people in fiscal year 2016 to 81,000 in fiscal year 2017 (the other deportations involve those turned away at the border). And the total number of ICE arrests went up 42 percent between those two years, according to the federal immigration agency.

That means that in Charlottesville, as elsewhere in the country, undocumented people who have built lives and families here are living in fear.

The greatest challenge they face isn’t one insurmountable obstacle, advocates say:  It’s the everyday struggle of making a living without being noticed. It’s an ever-growing mountain of small, mundane tasks made more complicated by increased pressure from ICE and the current administration. It’s the struggle to stay under the radar, to live in the shadows. Because unlike the rest of us, if they make one wrong move, or if they’re at the wrong place at the wrong time, it could all be over.

In response, local organizations have stepped up to help. Some draw hundreds of affiliates and allies, and some have fewer than 10 members. Some are faith-based. Some are nonprofits. Some are made of young leaders and some host a more mature base of volunteers. But there’s at least one thing they all have in common: the shared idea that no human is illegal.

“This [undocumented] community has always done the work others with privilege won’t do, but we’ve created laws that exclude people and make them illegal.” –Edgar Lara, director of community engagement at Sin Barreras

The silent struggle

“When we talk about the undocumented immigrant population, we’re really talking about a community that’s been part of the United States since before there was a United States,” says Edgar Lara, the director of community engagement at Sin Barreras, a small nonprofit that, among other things, connects Charlottesville’s community of migrants to immigration, health, legal, education, and banking services.

For Lara—who grew up in California with an undocumented single mother, and who spent several summers as a migrant worker in largely undocumented West Coast communities—the notion that immigrants have always been in the U.S. is important to consider when scrutinizing who has the legal right to live in this country.

As Lara puts it, a lot has changed throughout American history, and laws and borders are just two examples. “But the people have been here. This [undocumented] community has always done the work others with privilege won’t do, but we’ve created laws that exclude people and make them illegal.”

It’s not any different here in Charlottesville, he adds. A diverse community of undocumented people work, rent homes, and go to school in this city. And says Lara, they’re “just normal people living their lives, but under very difficult conditions.”

Here’s an example: Lara recently talked with a man at Sin Barreras who needed to have a document notarized. When a notary wasn’t immediately available, Lara says he explained to the man the simple process of how to go elsewhere for the service.

“And the person just kind of, they paused for a bit,” says Lara, adding that the man eventually said he’d rather wait in the Sin Barreras lobby, or come back another time. And when Lara asked why, the client said, “Well, it’s just different.”

When you’re undocumented, everything is different—and folded with layers of difficulty that most people don’t think about as they go through the minutiae of everyday life, whether that’s fear of being stopped by ICE, trouble navigating U.S. culture, or the fact that “people do look at them funny,” or judge them for their accents, Lara says.

The real struggle is “just the everyday living.”

“There’s small things, but it’s every day,” he adds, and while folks can sometimes work through them on their own, “other times, those little things can become big things. A lot of them are really huge things. And to everybody else, it’s something small.”

Like the inability to get permission to drive, which some advocates say is particularly inhumane.

In Virginia, unlike other states, undocumented people may not obtain driver’s licenses. But with few options for public transportation, that means they must risk driving illegally to get to work, or a medical appointment, or a child’s engagement.

“It’s the way most [undocumented] people around here get in trouble,” says Lara. “They can’t make a mistake or be in the wrong place without facing extra levels of punishment. Our government goes to great efforts to highlight and exaggerate the mistakes the undocumented community makes.”

He adds that they’re actually more likely to be the victims of crimes than to commit them. For instance, a study by the libertarian Cato Institute earlier this year found that native-born residents in Texas were much more likely to be convicted of a crime than either legal or undocumented immigrants. And a March study in the journal Criminology showed that places with higher percentages of undocumented immigrants tend to have less violent crime.

“There are over 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and that scares a lot of people, but if they were really criminals, we would all truly know about it,” he says. “Using fear to create hate and anger has been an effective tool.”

Hundreds of UVA students, faculty, and other allies attended a September 2017 rally in support of the university’s undocumented students when President Trump announced plans to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which had temporarily protected them from deportation. Photo: Eze Amos

Fighting stereotypes

A University of Virginia group called DREAMers on Grounds is working to extinguish those negative stereotypes, says fourth-year student Katherine Soba, who is president of the organization.

“Political rhetoric is becoming a lot more aggressive and violent,” she says, and many people have a false perception of this community of “hard-working people.” Oftentimes, undocumented people pay taxes for benefits like Social Security and Medicare that they can’t even use. And  they don’t benefit from any federal aid or welfare, she adds, because they don’t have Social Security numbers.

Once a month, DREAMers on Grounds holds a well-attended “UndocuAlly” training for students, faculty, and community members that addresses those stigmas and stereotypes. The group takes its name from the DREAM Act, or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, a piece of bipartisan legislation first introduced in 2001, that sought to help immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. After several versions of the bill failed to pass in Congress, the Obama administration established a stop-gap policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA has allowed the children of undocumented immigrants to be eligible for work permits and deferred action from deportation.

In September 2017, when Donald Trump announced his plans to rescind DACA, hundreds of UVA students and community members, including folks with DREAMers on Grounds, met on the steps of Garrett Hall to call for permanent protection for all DACA recipients and their families.

Soba estimates that more than 50, but fewer than 100, UVA students have DACA status. And they’re ready to tackle the administration head-on.

At the rally, immigrants and their allies shouted in unison, “undocumented and unafraid!” Their calls reverberated off the columns of the surrounding buildings and amphitheater in the moment of solidarity.

“The phrase, as a concept, is there to empower the [undocumented] community and allies,” says Soba. “But being completely unafraid sometimes isn’t an option.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Lara, who also attended that September 2017 rally, and who says those student leaders have a different mindset than other undocumented people living in Charlottesville.

“They’ve taken a lead and I think they’re a great example of what we hope for the entire community,” says Lara. “But I don’t think they’re there. …There’s still a lot of fear.”

ICE in Charlottesville

An ICE representative says agents haven’t conducted any raids here, and advocates of undocumented immigrants say most local ICE activity happens at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

The jail is required to notify ICE when an undocumented person is first taken into custody. But they also voluntarily give the federal agency a “courtesy call” immediately before an undocumented inmate’s release date, so agents can be there waiting for them.

Several local groups, including Sin Barreras and the newly formed ICE Out of Charlottesville, are aggressively advocating for an end to this voluntary cooperation.

According to the jail’s records, ICE picked up 25 people between July 2017 and June 2018 who were charged with crimes from the serious—malicious wounding, domestic assault—to those that are essentially a consequence of being undocumented, such as driving without a license or failure to appear in court.

A majority of ICE arrests across the country happen when undocumented people are released from jail, according to the Charlottesville-area Immigrant Resource & Advocacy Coalition. CIRAC’s stance is that immigration is a federal civil matter, not a state or local criminal matter, and therefore a local jail has no reason to voluntarily cooperate with federal immigration agents.

In October, the group launched the Cville Immigrant Bond Fund—a product of their previous work with a local undocumented man for whom they use the pseudonym Eduardo.

Last December, Eduardo’s attorney called on CIRAC for help when he was detained by ICE.

The Guatemalan man, who had lived and worked in Charlottesville for a decade, was stopped on Route 20 and arrested for driving without a license. When he left the local jail after serving his sentence, federal immigration agents were there waiting for him. They took him to the Farmville Detention Center—the closest one to Charlottesville—and then moved him to a facility in Texas.

Eduardo’s bond was then set at $10,000, according to CIRAC. His family was deprived of his income, his 2-year-old wouldn’t eat, his attorney was representing him by phone, and his family was ready to accept a bond loan from a private company that charges high fees and requires ankle monitoring. But the folks at CIRAC raised enough money to pay his bond just in time, and now he’s back home while he awaits his next immigration hearing in 2019.

Citing numbers released by the jail, CIRAC representatives say he’s just one of the 24 to 40 people annually whose arrests in Charlottesville place them directly into the “deportation pipeline.”

One law enforcement representative in the city agrees that the local community of migrants doesn’t create a threat to public safety, and is on board with ending the jail’s voluntary notifications to ICE.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania wrote in an August 10 letter to the jail board that its position on voluntary reporting and the media coverage surrounding it has left many community members “legitimately feeling angry, scared, and isolated.”

“In some cases, primary caretakers or breadwinners are removed and are no longer able to care for their children, who are oftentimes citizens,” wrote Platania. “I am also concerned about witnesses and victims looking at voluntary notification as a reason to be uncooperative with local law enforcement and not report crimes or participate with prosecutions because they fear the deportation of charged individuals.”

Platania noted the “significant concern” of two immigrants recently deported—one charged with DUI and the other with assault and battery—whom a judge had released on bond prior to their trials.

“They are currently considered fugitives from justice,” Platania said. “One problem presented by this scenario is that individuals who may not be guilty of the crime they have been charged with have no ability to assert their innocence and stand trial.”

Platania also said he “concurs wholeheartedly” with a July 1 letter from the jail board—signed by Superintendent Martin Kumer and board chair Diantha McKeel—in which they said undocumented immigrants don’t pose an inherent danger based solely on their citizenship status.

“If the board agrees with the letter it wrote, it may be useful to have ICE articulate with specificity how the voluntary notification policy furthers legitimate local public safety needs,” Platania said. And after examining available data on city cases, “I am unable to see the positive impact the current policy has on family stability or public safety.”

Echoing the local activists’ position, he said, “If community safety is one of our guiding principles, and it must be, it seems unwise to have a policy that perhaps unintentionally (albeit foreseeably) undermines it.”

Though Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail Superintendent Martin Kumer has said notifying ICE of inmates’ release dates keeps the community safe, advocates against the voluntary policy, including the city’s commonwealth’s attorney, say it does the opposite. Photo: Eze Amos

But the man who holds the top prosecutor job in the county, Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci, continues to advocate for the jail to keep its voluntary reporting practice because he says he’s opposed to obstructing the enforcement of federal immigration practices. And so have four of the six law enforcement representatives asked to weigh in on the practice, including Nelson Commonwealth’s Attorney Daniel Rutherford and the sheriffs from Nelson, Albemarle, and Charlottesville.

“As a first-generation American whose parents are both immigrants, I realize the emotion the issue of immigration evokes in many,” wrote Tracci in his own August letter to the jail board. But he believes releasing “noncitizens” back into the community is dangerous.

Federal immigration detainers are typically only issued for ACRJ inmates with serious felony offenses, according to Tracci. The county’s commonwealth’s attorney has also noted that the jail refuses to hold undocumented inmates past their release dates for ICE, which was a practice the board decided to end in March 2017.

Tracci condemns critics he says have called him and other supporters of the policy “Nazis” and accused them of violating the Convention Against Torture.

“Demonization of law enforcement coarsens public discourse, renders sensible discussion less likely, and affronts those who strive daily to fairly enforce duly enacted law they swore an oath to protect and defend,” he says.

Some local activists have also criticized Tracci for inviting people who support the jail’s current policy to speak during the public comment session at its board meetings.

At a September 13 meeting, “almost everyone who spoke in public comment was saying these really vitriolic, bigoted, racist things about migrants and about dangers that they pose to the community, and it was completely untrue and unfounded,” says Mark Heisey, an organizer with ICE Out of Cville. “Some of it was just speculative to the point of being absurd.”

For example, Heisey says he heard one speaker tell the jail board that even though UVA student Hannah Graham was murdered in 2014 by a U.S.-born citizen, it could have been an undocumented immigrant. “That kind of logic comes from a place of hate,” he says.

ICE Out of Cville has approximately 10 core members who have been organizing under that name for about five months, but they had independently been working on their campaign to end the jail’s ICE notifications since the beginning of the year. They believe ICE is unjustly, senselessly, and needlessly tearing apart local families.

While Tracci notes that some crimes undocumented people have been charged with locally include taking indecent liberties with a child, abduction, and strangulation, Heisey says “ICE is basically destroying people’s lives over…what are considered really low-level offenses,” such as failing to pay child support, failure to appear in court, being drunk in public, or driving without a license, like in Eduardo’s case.

The ICE Out of Cville representative doesn’t shy away from talking about the reputation of the federal immigration agency—especially under the new administration—which has racked up “innumerable documented cases” of human rights and sex abuses. It operates for-profit prisons and some of the worst detention centers in the country, Heisey says.

Russell Hott, the director of enforcement and removal operations at ICE’s D.C. field office, didn’t respond to questions about whether ICE had been unfairly characterized in the media. But he said “ICE’s mission to promote public safety and national security has remained unchanged since the agency was created in 2003.”

“A lot of the folks who are undocumented in Charlottesville are fleeing situations that are life threatening, and situations that the U.S. government is often complicit in, if not directly responsible for,” counters Heisey. “And so it’s just completely inhumane and indefensible that a community that is trying to have some kind of semblance of justice would voluntarily, and with no legal obligation whatsoever, work with an organization that’s so cruel and that has no regard for people’s humanity.”

One thing the community can do to resist ICE is to notice and challenge their tactics, he says. Showing up to speak at jail board meetings, and building more community involvement and engagement is a good place to start. After all, ICE is allowed to “do what they do” because “they largely operate in the shadows,” he says.

‘An underground railroad’

Bringing the plight of the undocumented out into the open is a core part of Lana Heath de Martinez’s work. In September, the Richmond-based immigrant rights activist called Pastor Isaac Collins of Wesley Memorial Church with a special request: Would the congregation grant Maria Chavalan-Sut, a refugee seeking asylum, public sanctuary?

The public sanctuary movement provides immigrants at risk of deportation with shelter in churches and other safe spaces. Heath de Martinez, who helped another immigrant take sanctuary in a Richmond church in June, says the goal of their campaigns is to make the asylum-seekers “household names,” so that people “feel almost like they’re part of the family—somebody who they find relatable and have some sense of empathy and compassion for.”

She also knows of at least a dozen local people offering their homes as private sanctuaries. And they’re not necessarily a secret—ICE knows where some undocumented people are staying as they go through legal recourse, and some even wear ankle monitors, like Maria.

But some are kept secret. “All over the country, you have people who are hiding in part of what we might call an underground railroad,” she says.

“And you have to realize being in sanctuary can create this beloved community, and that’s really beautiful, but it’s still being incarcerated. It’s still life without parole until the administration changes.”

For now, public sanctuaries remain safe spaces. The “sensitive locations” memo from the Obama administration asks, but doesn’t require, that immigration agents not make arrests in locations such as churches, schools, and hospitals, and so far no raids have happened in these places, she says.

“It’s put in place because the optics would be bad,” says Heath de Martinez, adding that  immigration officers very rarely have a judicial warrant, and they can’t get in without one.

But when saying it’s never happened, she tacks the word “yet” onto the end of her sentence, partially because immigration officers often make headlines for bad optics, such as when a man granted sanctuary at a church in Durham, North Carolina, for 11 months was arrested during a routine meeting at an immigration office, and 27 church members there to support him were also put in cuffs. Or when officers tear gassed migrants—and their small children—at the San Diego/Tijuana border in late November.

Says Hott from ICE’s D.C. field office, “Sanctuary policies fail to recognize federally established processes for the enforcement of immigration law. These policies provide a refuge for illegal aliens, and they do so at the expense of the safety of a community’s citizens.”

Dozens of community members are rallying behind Maria Chavalan-Sut, a native Guatemalan refugee seeking asylum in America. When an immigration judge ordered her to leave the country in September, a local church opened its doors to grant her public sanctuary while she appeals the decision. Photo: Eze Amos

Granting sanctuary

Chavalan-Sut accepted an interview request, but because her case is pending, she can’t talk much about it. She says she’s thankful for the church and community for being so open to her staying for a while.

“Well, from the beginning, the first days weren’t very easy,” she says, while sitting on a couch in the basement of the church. Organ and trumpet music from upstairs spills into the room. “I’ve always been a hard-working person. I need to find something to occupy my time.”

As she waits for her next hearing, which hasn’t been scheduled, she’s been studying English—her fourth language—reading, talking to God, and knitting purses, for which she’s currently accepting donations. She says she’ll send the money back to her four children in Guatemala to buy them food, clothes, and school supplies.

When asked to describe ICE, she says it has “opened a wound.” Before she took sanctuary, she was afraid that representatives of the federal agency could be anywhere she went.

“I want to feel better,” she adds.

Says Pastor Collins, “The story of undocumented people in our community is one that is so easy to overlook if you’re privileged and of a certain social class, and by welcoming Maria in, we’ve not only heard her story, but countless stories from a community of people who are just like her.”

But allowing her to take sanctuary was a tough decision for the congregation of fewer than 100 people. And upon saying yes, they only knew three things.

“One is that even though we didn’t know how it would go, we felt like we had a moral obligation to say yes,” Collins says. And two, they knew it would forever transform the culture of the church. Hosting an undocumented immigrant might be out of some of the members’ comfort zones, “but we’re trying to figure out what it means to be a community where we’re called to serve others rather than be served.”

“And finally,” he says, “We knew we weren’t going to be in it alone.”

Supporters have consistently been in and out of the church for months—”people working every week on this project who would never be caught dead in a church because they’re skeptical of religion or because they’ve been burned by it in the past,” says the pastor.

He talked with his congregation about whether protecting someone who’s been ordered to leave the country should be considered illegal. And they’ve decided it shouldn’t.

“Christians have a moral obligation to speak out when the laws of the countries they’re living in are unjust or creating suffering,” Collins says. “Christians have to walk a delicate line when it comes to the way that we raise our voices because many people are not comfortable having a religious and political conversation, and yet, at the same time, from a moral standpoint, we have certain teachings that are very clear on what the laws of this country should be accomplishing.”

That includes the greater freedoms of people who are fleeing persecution, he says.

It’s the same spirit that has motivated a small group of local clergy and attorneys to travel to the U.S./Mexico border to meet the thousands of asylum-seeking men, women, and children traveling there from Honduras—the “migrant caravan” repeatedly demonized by Trump. They are joining other advocates from across the country who are heading to the border to provide humanitarian assistance, and help migrants understand their legal rights.

“When people are hurting, when people are wailing, we are called to be with them,” says the Reverend Brittany Caine-Conley, a local organizer with Congregate Charlottesville, who is joining the group at the border. “These asylum-seekers are desperate to live and we, as people of faith, should do everything in our power to assist them. To welcome the stranger is one of our greatest and most consistent religious commandments.”

Chavalan-Sut follows these stories from her sanctuary, and is paying close attention to the migrant caravan. She says those taking that journey are suffering from hunger, sickness, and extreme heat or cold. “And the only thing that’s left is just to keep going forward and to fight and to struggle to survive.”

“In order to be able to understand this, you have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” the Guatemalan refugee adds. “It’s not easy. You leave your country because you come to the point where there’s no other way forward.”

“[You’re] searching for another place where you can just live.”

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